This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, called in English, Numbers. It is a book filled with a variety of stories. The people will spend this book journeying through the wilderness (midbar), preparing to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. This 40 year journey, its challenges and triumphs, are preparation for what lies ahead, in particular the battles with the Canannites and those who occupy the land of Israel. There is the story of the spies scouting the land. There are moments when the people lose faith and question the purpose of their mission. There are as well other moments when the people rebel against Moses. And there is this week’s opening chapter, a census of the Israelites.
The plain meaning of the census is clear. It is a mustering of the troops. Each tribe is counted, with the exception of the Levites. Their sole purpose was to tend to the tabernacle and its ritual objects and therefore need not be counted as part of the army. “Those are the enrollments recorded by Moses and Aaron and by the chieftains of Israel, who were twelve in number, one man to each ancestral house. All the Israelites, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms—all who were enrolled came to 603,550.” (Numbers 1:44-46) What an apparently large army that was!
Yet regardless of the army’s size, the Bible suggests that there is only one reason why Israel succeeds on the battlefield. “On that occasion, when the Lord routed the Amorites before the Israelites, Joshua addressed the Lord; he said in the presence of the Israelites: ‘Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon, in the Valley of Aiyalon!’ And the sun stood still and the moon halted, while a nation wreaked judgment on its foes…” (Joshua 10:12-13) Ultimately it is God who leads the fight for Israel’s army of 600,000.
When the modern State of Israel was founded its Jewish population was slightly more than this ancient number. In today’s Israel it is therefore difficult to ignore ancient tropes in its modern achievements. That is the country’s power. That is the nation’s pull. It is also of course its danger.
How do we read the Bible and find meaning in its words while not becoming intoxicated by its rhythms? How can the modern State of Israel remain Jewish while not as well become a land ruled by Joshuas? Let me be honest and forthright. Joshua was an extraordinary leader for ancient times. He took the reins from Moses and successfully led the Israelites into battle for the Promised Land. Under his leadership the Torah’s promise of living in the land of Israel was achieved.
Yet Joshua must not serve as a template for a modern leader. Why? The answer is simple. He was no democratic ruler. The State of Israel must be both Jewish and democratic in order for it to survive in the modern age. It must be Jewish and democratic in order for it to fulfill the vision of its Zionist founders.
As I read this week’s portion I find myself torn. The Bible will always have great pull on my soul. But I must not allow it to rule over my life. It can be a great source of unending inspiration, but never the final answer to all modern questions.
And so given this week’s news, I turn as well to its words to draw strength for the future. Joshua charges the people: “Be strong and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) Joshua’s actions might give me pause. His words continue to offer inspiration.